Meiji government

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  • Japanese: 明治政府 (meiji seifu)

The government of the Meiji period consisted primarily of the Meiji Emperor, a series of officials and apparatuses that governed in his name, and the National Diet.

Early Experiments

Following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 and the officially declared restoration of power to the Emperor, Saigô Takamori, Kido Kôin, and other leaders of the Restoration appointed themselves heads of a provisional government. Later that year, they established a new Council of State (Dajôkan to serve as the highest governmental body.[1]

In 1871, the same year they abolished the daimyô domains, the new government replaced the Council of State with an arrange of ministries, covering Finance, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Public Works, and so forth, grouped under three umbrella ministries: the Ministry of the Left, Ministry of the Center, and Minister of the Right.[1]

The government was then reorganized again in 1885, with a prime minister presiding over a cabinet made up of the heads of the various ministries. Though there was a Diet (a representative elected legislature), the Ministries were answerable not to the Diet, but only to the Emperor. A civil service examination system was introduced in 1887 to replace the previous system of the Satsuma, Chôshû, and Tosa leaders simply selecting officials based on personal connections.[1]

1889 Constitution

The Diet (from Latin dieta for "public assembly"), as established by the Meiji Constitution in 1889, consisted of two houses: The House of Peers, and the House of Representatives. The upper house was composed of members of the kazoku aristocracy, while the lower house was elected by a group of tax-paying landowners who numbered roughly 450,000 men, or roughly 1.1% of the total Japanese population.

The Emperor held power over foreign relations and the military, as well as the power to open, recess, or dissolve the Diet, to issue his own edicts, and to veto decisions made by the legislature. Furthermore, the government's cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, were responsible to the Emperor, not to the Diet. The Diet's chief power under this system was to coordinate budgets; however, if the Diet was unable to come to a decision regarding a new budget, the previous year's budget would be automatically renewed.

The Emperor was the only one with the power to initiate consideration of changes to the constitution, but aside from exercising certain other powers, for the most part, he was distanced from actual governance & administration. Instead, the government was administered, and legislative decisions decided, by the Privy Council, the Cabinet, the Diet, and the general staff. The constitution did not provide for the mechanisms of interaction between these bodies, however, and so in practice, considerable political power remained in the hands of the genrô (Elder Statesmen, chiefly including those prominent in the Meiji Restoration or the establishment of Meiji institutions).


The first elections were held in 1890. The Jiyûtô ("Freedom Party") and Kaishintô ("Progressive Party"), both of which were opposed to the basic structure of the government, won 130 and 47 seats respectively; those in favor of the structure of government and rule by the genrô won only 79 seats. Considerable conflict resulted within the Diet, leading to a budget being passed only when Yamagata Aritomo resorted to force and bribery; the Diet was subsequently dismissed.

New elections were held in 1892. Police forces were deployed to intimidate the opposition, but the genrô and their government still failed to secure a supportive Diet. The Imperial institution intervened in 1893, but this only achieved temporary stability; elections in 1894 once again resulted in a majority in the Diet opposed to the government as it stood. This Diet was dismissed after only a month and a half. It was only with the nationalism surrounding the Sino-Japanese War that the government was able to achieve a considerable degree of support, and unity of purpose.


  • Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 180.
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 63-64.